Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, the Director of the Religious Studies Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a seasoned participant in interreligious dialogue, relates a telling incident that took place at an interfaith conference hosted by the Emir of Qatar in 2005. Rabbi Fuchs-Kreimer was one of four rabbis who had been invited to participate in panel discussions–a list that pointedly did not include any Israeli rabbis. The American rabbis debated whether they should participate when their Israeli colleagues were specifically disallowed and, in the end, chose to participate, taking every opportunity to reiterate both publicly and privately how much they hoped Israeli rabbis would be able to participate in the future. The following year, Israeli rabbis were invited to attend and participate in panel discussions.
Rabbi Fuchs-Kreimer’s point, and one that Rabbi Stern makes as well, is that the most important and meaningful dialogue doesn’t take place with people we agree with or even necessarily like. If we truly seek to make a change, to open up the possibility for transformation, then we must engage with those who don’t share our beliefs. (We can, of course, decide that there are people we wish for one reason or another to declare ‘beyond the pale’ and make a point of not engaging them. When we do this, we’re generally making a gesture for internal consumption–to gain points or bona fides with our own constituency–and not to create meaningful change.)
Rabbi Hirschfield’s caveats about maintaining one’s own integrity, of course, are well taken (you can’t possibly encounter the Other in dialogue if you can’t bring yourself as well). And speaking from personal experience, I know how painful it is to enter into genuine dialogue in good faith and find that others are unwilling to extend the same courtesy or are merely grandstanding. Besides, there’s always the risk that you’ll come to acknowledge the rightness of somebody else’s view. Yes, there are so many spiritual and intellectual pitfalls to engaging in dialogue, that if it didn’t contain so much power and potential, it might be far easier to skip it altogether.
Rabbi Rolando Matalon, another of the rabbis on that fateful trip to Qatar, acknowledged the difficulty of dialogue with people whose views are so antithetical to one’s own. “I would rather negotiate [about Israel] with the Swedes,” he remarked, “But they’re not the ones we have to deal with.”